Though many Heathens don’t follow the eight standard Wheel of the Year holidays that many Pagans adhere to, the deepening of fall and the coming of winter naturally lends itself to special honor of one’s ancestors. But for those who are new to the idea of ancestor veneration, knowing what to do can be tricky! Here’s five tips to get you started on your path.
1) Make a Shrine. This is an easy one, which many non-Heathens and non-Pagans practice too. If you’re willing to dig through family history or get in touch with some of your older relatives – and really, if you’re looking to begin ancestor veneration, you should be doing these things – you will probably find pictures or even precious little things owned or made by those who went before you.
If you can’t find pictures or things owned by your beloved dead, little things that remind you of them can also be a great focus point. Gather these things together in an area of your house or living space where you’re sure to notice them at least once a day. This noticing – and perhaps a brief stop at the shrine to remember and value the memories of your ancestors – is the foundation of ancestor veneration.
2) Tell Stories. My favorite ancestor rituals are not the somber, dark affairs with solemn silence and black cloth covering the room, although those can be very impactful. My personal favorite, where I find my best connection, is in the kind of rituals where stories are told and memories are shared.
This story-telling shouldn’t be reserved only for ritual, however. Whenever I am with my children and am reminded of something about my grandfather who passed on, I make a point to pause and share this memory with them. They were young when he passed, and my youngest is unlikely to remember him alive at all – but through the stories I tell, they know him well, and his memory is honored.
3) Visit their Graves. This is kind of a scary suggestion for some people! In our society, we tend to associate cemeteries with the dark and spooky (which the dead certainly can be), but we’ve forgotten the closeness and familiarity we once enjoyed with death.
In the cemetery where my great-grandparents are buried, there are benches and picnic tables scattered throughout the park. When the caretaker told me whole families used to come and picnic there not too many decades ago, I was shocked. This is a value our culture seems to have completely lost.
The grave is a powerful place. I believe the bones of the dead hold their spirits close; not that they can never go roaming, or that they are unaware of their descendants or those who call on them, but the grave is the seat of their power. When I meet them there, bring offerings to their holy place, there is a closeness and a spiritual benefit that cannot be underestimated.
4) Give them Gifts. I am always a bit concerned when giving gifts to the Gods; I’m never one hundred percent sure that a gift is desirable. Comparatively, ancestors are easy! For those whom you knew in life, chances are you already know the things they enjoyed, or special treats they would like. These are just as appreciated now as they would have been when your loved one was alive.
When I explain offerings to Pagans who don’t follow a more devotional model, I often start with ancestors; it just makes sense to give presents to your relatives. The concept of reciprocity is often a big feature of healthy, functional families – everyone helps out one another when its needed, and gifts are given and shared and enjoyed. Your beloved dead are still a part of your family, and they still like to get presents just as they id in life!
5) Think Outside the Box of Blood and Bone. When talking about ancestor veneration, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in the blood-ancestor paradigm; I am very often guilty of this myself. This can be so alienating for those who have entirely good reasons to not want to honor their direct blood relatives. We all know that families are not always functional and healthy, and if a person chooses not to honor a relative that abused or hurt them, I support that decision.
But blood relatives are not the end-all, be-all of ancestry. We all have cultural ancestors, the people who built our society and contributed heavily to our lives; both on a larger cultural scale and down to the small sub-culture divisions.
For instance, I have included in some of my ancestor devotionals a man who I never met in person, but was a pioneer in his industry, and whose blog I followed for years. His writing, thoughts and interests had a tremendous impact on the person that I grew to be, and I honor him for that contribution.
Many people also have friends they were very close to while they lived, practically like family, whom they honor as ancestors once they have passed on. This is not much different from honoring adoptive ancestors – if you have been close to a person, built a connection with them, there is no reason you cannot honor them among your beloved dead.